Emmanuel Macron’s Next Gamble

President Emmanuel Macron of France attends a dinner organized by the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) to break the fast of Ramadan, in Paris, this week. Benjamin Cremel/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
President Emmanuel Macron of France attends a dinner organized by the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) to break the fast of Ramadan, in Paris, this week. Benjamin Cremel/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The long spasm that seized and radically transformed the French political system has now ended. On the left, the Socialist Party and the Europe Ecologie Les Verts, or E.E.L.V, party lie in ruins. On the right, internal splits have weakened Les Républicains. Having won only a few seats in the National Assembly, both the far-right party of Marine Le Pen and the far-left party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon — the latter intermittently allied with a Communist Party that is itself much reduced — constitute an adaptable extra-parliamentary force more than a meaningful parliamentary opposition.

The left and the right might eventually be reborn. Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, and Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, have said that they each intend to create a new political force. In the meantime, the new president, Emmanuel Macron, won’t have to concern himself too much with traditional political institutions. He has at his disposal a National Assembly well suited to his purposes, and will be able to exercise power from the top down with no great difficulty.

His hegemonic party forms a kind of soft-bellied center that houses authentic centrists, renegades from the right and the left and newcomers about whom practically nothing is known except that Mr. Macron’s team selected them to run for the National Assembly because they were young and belonged, as the president put it, to “civil society.” Read: because they had no political experience. That’s really what all this is about, since these novices do not represent society at large — just, at best, certain segments of the middle class.

Mr. Macron won his political gamble; now he must face the consequences. He hopes to incarnate the nation, yet only about 18 percent of registered voters cast a ballot for him in the first round of the presidential election. He still needs to earn the trust of many citizens.

Some observers forecast that street demonstrations will become the main form of disagreement with, perhaps even resistance to, the new head of state. But two out of three of the country’s most influential unions have said they hope to hash out a negotiated solution directly with the government.

Such encounters have occurred in the past, but today — and this is what’s new — they will be occurring at a time when Parliament is likely to be only a theater for jousts of little import.

An important test case is likely to concern the state of emergency. Recent terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom and others, though less serious, in Paris have revived French people’s anxieties about security. In response, Mr. Macron has proposed putting an end to the state of emergency — which has been in effect since November 2015, even though it is only ever supposed to be temporary — and instead writing its chief measures into law. But as soon as the project was announced, a network of humanitarian and human rights associations, attorneys and jurists — which had already mobilized against the state of emergency for being an excessive restriction on freedom — rose against it. Its organizers asked to meet ministers, even the head of state.

Such encounters wouldn’t be anything new. But in the current context, which is unprecedented, they would take on singular significance.

The executive’s handling of another topic will be revealing: labor-law reform, which Mr. Macron said he supported at the onset of the presidential campaign. His administration is now expected to pass relevant changes to the law by presidential decree, without any real parliamentary debate. The core issue is how to balance, on the one hand, employers’ demands for greater flexibility to hire and fire workers and, on the other, the expectations of workers and union representatives who worried about job security.

So far, the government has been consulting parties from both sides. What remains to be seen is if the powers that be will make decisions with any consideration for the preferences of collective actors from civil society — knowing, in addition, that the new Parliament will rubberstamp their decisions.

If the president does devote proper attention to some of the demands citizens present to l’Elysée — demands that typically fall within the purview of the left — he might also revive the very notion that the left has a raison d’être, an idea that has been undermined by the collapse of the Socialist Party and perverted by the radical tendencies of Mr. Mélenchon’s party, France Unbowed.

This would be all the more significant because the main opposition that is still standing on the formal French political scene today is what’s left of the right in Parliament — and that’s a harder right, by definition unlikely to endorse socially driven demands about labor and employment.

Mr. Macron appears to have completed a faultless course since he created the En Marche! movement. He banked, rightly, on the end of the traditional left-right opposition. He anticipated, correctly, that once they got to the ballot box enough French voters would turn against the demagogy of extremist parties, despite those parties’ growing popularity.

The president must now win another wager, one with perhaps even slimmer odds of success than the previous: that he can implement policies to spur growth and put a dent in unemployment.

To this end, he seems ready to pass some of his campaign proposals swiftly, without much legislative input, by relying on a powerful technocracy, even at the risk of seeming imperious. But if at the same time his administration does lend an ear to civil society — encouraging citizen activists to express themselves by showing them that speaking up pays off — it might then strike a balance with this new right-leaning Parliament, all the while still appearing to transcend the old left-right divide and so thwarting the extremists who use resentment to their own ends.

Michel Wieviorka, a sociologist, is the head of the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, in Paris, and a member of the European Research Council’s Scientific Council. This essay was translated by John Cullen from the French.

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